Google announced Tuesday the launch of a new social network, called Google +, or Google Plus, which aims to take on Facebook. As Hayley Tsukayama reported:

Google made a huge announcement today, launching Google +, or Google Plus, its long-awaited version of a social network to rival Facebook.

Google’s been trying to crack the social market for years, running into false starts with content-sharing services Wave and Buzz. (The former fizzled and the latter set off a privacy complaints that ended with a lawsuit and an FTC settlement.) Many have been waiting for Google’s big push into social since it rolled out its +1 button in March, especially as Facebook gets cozy with its search rival, Microsoft.

And then, today, Google announced +. The site bears a striking resemblance to Facebook, with streaming feeds and specialized groups of friends. In fact, Google + gathers many of the features of existing social networks.

The network has five basic components: Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Instant Uploads and Huddle. It also requires a Google profile, meaning you’ll need to provide Google, at minimum, with a name and a photo.

Circles lets you group your contacts — e.g. friends, work, family. Like Facebook, this features lets you share information with groups of contacts instead of hitting everyone with your latest update at once. Sparks acts like an RSS reader or Facebook news feed, letting you input things you’re interested in and pushing relevant content to you. Hangouts features live group video chats, aiming to foster spontaneous meetings with up to 10 people. You can also alert certain groups of friends when you’re hanging out.

Instant Uploads takes care of the increasingly important mobile aspect of social networking, automatically posting users’ phone pictures and videos to a private album. From there, users can decide if and with whom they want to share their media. You also have the option to add location data to every Google + post.

And Huddle is a group texting feature — similar to Beluga, which Facebook acquired in March — that lets you have a group chat through your phone.

Some analysts are asking whether Google expansion into the social media sphere is a bad move. TechCruch guest contributor Semil Shah asked the same question:

Today’s soft-launch of Google’s new social galaxy, Google+, raises one interesting question: Can Google, a massive, multinational, cash-rich, consumer technology company with multiple successful productivity applications and services, take its dough out of the oven and bake a social network into their bread?

Over the past year, Google has undergone some big changes. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt stepped down. Co-founder Larry Page stepped in, reshuffling the deck and tying employee bonuses to creating a successful social experience. The result seems to be a slick-looking yet potentially Wave-like confusing constellation of social “circles,” “huddles,” “hangouts,” and  ”sparks” that could, theoretically, lay the foundation for new, more nuanced social networks to form. In the middle of all the reactions to today’s release, I believe it’s important to step back and ponder whether Google is focusing its efforts on the wrong problem, and in doing so, to investigate a potentially better fit that coincides with the company’s own DNA.

What made Google “Google” was its groundbreaking PageRank technology that allowed us to search the web more efficiently. Powered by a mandate to organize the world’s information online, Google trained all of us over more than a decade to tune our online search behavior to entering in keywords and symbols. As obvious as that seems today, this is not how humans as a species are wired to search for new information. Before the Internet, most “search” was conducted through offline directories and by the time-honored evolutionary tradition of asking questions. “Where would you recommend I stay on my trip to Hawaii?” “What dish did you order at that new restaurant in the hotel?” “Where can I get the best deal on that hotel?” Google has elegantly stripped down these queries and trained us to, instead, enter the following text in a search box: “Hawaii + hotel deal” or “Hawaii + restaurant + popular dish.”

Early reviews of Google+ have been mostly positive, with some analysts saying a closer resemblance to Facebook could spell trouble for Google. As TechCruch reported:

I’ve spent the last several hours using Google+. That’s a good sign. While I first got a glimpse of the project when meeting with Google last week ahead of today’s story, such meetings are usually little more than fast-paced tutorials or worse, sales pitches. I definitely prefer to sit down and use things myself in a somewhat regular setting and see how I react. And seeing as the roll-out for Google+ is very limited right now, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

First of all, Google+ is easily already the most compelling social project Google has ever done. Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but it is saying something. That statement includes Wave, which was more ambitious, but was not nearly as polished at any point in its brief life as Google+ is right now.

That’s not to say Google+ doesn’t have bugs — it does. But they’re relatively minor and the team seems on top of all them. They should go away long before most people actually use the service. Even in this trial phase, Google+ is solid.

To me, Google+ feels closer to Google Buzz — but it feels like the version of Google Buzz that should have launched. There is no question in my mind that Google Buzz is now dead as a result of what Google+ is. It’s better in every way.

To that end, Google+ actually may remind me more of FriendFeed than anything else. But instead of being the ghost town that FriendFeed became after its acquisition by Facebook, Google+ feels like an frontier town that could erupt with growth if gold is found.

But it’s also substantially different from both Buzz and FriendFeed in that those services rely heavily on users importing data from other services to populate feeds. Google+ doesn’t give you any options to do that beyond manually brining in outside links. This is important because it means that any information users put in, they explicitly want to put it. As a result, they’re more likely to both be more discerning and to interact with it.

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